The Bentonville Film Festival Takes Us On A Journey

By  · Published on May 9th, 2015

Samuel Goldwyn Films

If you look at any film festival line-up hard enough, themes and patterns begin to emerge, not just from year to year, but festival to festival. You can count on Cannes to lead the way with international offerings that will likely color the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar ranks in ten months’ time. Sundance seems like to indie films about shiftless young people, along with passion projects from established stars looking to make the jump to the director’s chair (or the writer’s or the producer’s). SXSW is a good bet for Texas-based filmmakers and big studio comedies. These are broad strokes, to be sure, but they’re the most noticeable ones. From year to year, certain thematic elements worm their way into programs – personally, I’m still nuts about Sundance 2012, which was all about cults (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound Of My Voice). Scan those festival slates long enough, and you can find those patterns.

Sometimes, though, they just appear. Day four at the Bentonville Film Festival was all about journeys, care of three (very different) films about three (very different) protagonists heading out on an adventure and, you guessed it, learning something along the way. Yet, for that thematic through-line, the fourth day of the newbie festival provided the greatest breadth of features yet, a testament to the depth of films that adhere to the fest’s mission to “champion women and diversity in film.” Let’s take a trip.

Watching kids films without kids in the audience is tough business. Sure, if something is charming or fun or well made, it should speak for itself, but if it’s aimed at the younger set and they’re not around to respond to what’s on the screen, it can be difficult for a crusty old adult to determine the appeal level of a film. Will the kids like this?, you might wonder, suddenly trying to picture the kids you know, realizing most of them are babies or toddlers who are only interested in Frozen (they all love Frozen, all of them). Is this movie like Frozen?, you will think. There are no princesses here, or even any ice.

Fortunately, Friday’s screening of Christopher N. Rowley’s Molly Moon was packed with happy kids, and although it’s not like Frozen, it is a bit like Harry Potter (kids also love Harry Potter, says this adult who also loves Harry Potter). Based on Georgia Byng’s book of the same name, Molly Moon introduces us to another plucky orphan, the eponymous Molly Moon (duh, as the kids would say), who lives in a small English orphanage run by, as tradition dictates, a pretty horrible headmistress. Molly’s (Raffey Cassidy) life isn’t all bad, however, and she’s got a fizzy spirit to keep her afloat, along with her best pal Rocky (Jadon Carnelly Morris) and at least one nice orphanage employee (Emily Watson). Molly Moon’s plot is a bit scattershot, but it’s also fast-moving and snappy, and even if adventures unfold too swiftly to have much connective tissue, it’s so good-natured and appropriately silly that it’s easy to forgive (the kids loved it, okay?).

Molly is a voracious reader, and when her frequent sojourns to the town library put her in the path of a mysterious book about hypnotism (and a crazy thief who wants to use the book for his own nefarious needs, amusingly played by Dominic Monaghan), she discovers she has a true talent for the art. Although the returns on Molly’s newfound skill are swift – she convinces that mean old headmaster to be nice, gets the cook to start preparing delicious meals, and even makes a furry friend out of nasty pug – there are unexpected consequences. After Rocky is adopted away to a maybe-nice (maybe) family in London, Molly embarks on a quest to get him back.

Although that may sound like adventure enough – a pre-teen hypnotist, running amok in London, trailed by an angry thief (whose mother is played by Joan Collins of all people) – the film takes a snappy left turn into strange territory. Molly soon becomes a major pop star (yes, thanks to they hypnotism), and while her new fame seems like a wonderful gift, it soon forces her to reconsider what’s really important in life. Packed with lessons and plenty of fun to boot, Molly Moon is a genuinely sweet family film, with enough jokes to keep the kids and adults laughing. One note, though: more pug!

No one is going to London in Love Finds You in Charm, but Terry Cunningham’s feature is about big journeys nonetheless. The soon-to-be-televised feature centers on spirited Emma Miller (Danielle Chuchran), a young Amish lady struggling with her path in life. Emma doesn’t go on rumpsringa – sorry to dash your reality show hopes – but she does embark on a trip to a new place that changes her perspective on things. Shipped off to another Amish community (in Charm, Ohio, which really does look charming) to help her busy cousin, Emma eagerly embraces her relative freedom, taking the chance to explore new people and new ideas.

Of course, there’s also a hunky Amish guy (Trevor Donovan) to help. It’s clear from the start what will happen to Emma – even the introduction of a smooth-talking Manhattanite who takes a liking to Emma’s homegrown cheese, literally and figuratively, can’t derail that – but the film zips pleasingly along to its inevitable ending. The film looks and moves like a television movie, which is only appropriate, as the film will soon air on the Up Network, but that’s not meant as any kind of dig against it. It’s cheesy and predictable and obvious, but it still makes time to wink at its genre – there are a lot of laughs in Love Finds You in Charm, and most of them are intentional – while also embracing it in a very sweet way. (It will also make you very hungry for goat cheese.)

Morgan MatthewsA Brilliant Young Mind has taken its own journey, too. The film premiered back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, when it was known as X+Y, and it arrived at Bentonville after playing intermittently in the ensuing months. Like Love Finds You in Charm, the film is mostly predictable, but it’s bolstered by uniformly excellent performances and a depth of humanity that’s hard to find in so many narrative features these days. The film stars Asa Butterfield (played in flashback scenes by Edward Baker-Close) as jumpy teen Nathan, a math whiz who was diagnosed with autism as a youngster. Although he lacks social skills – he’s very quiet and very shy, and he doesn’t like being touched – he finds solace in math (the film is British, so “maths”), which he is not only good at, but actually enjoys doing.

After a tragic accident (possible spoiler, but also a note to filmmakers everywhere, you’ve got to stop with these “out of nowhere!” T-bone car accidents, they are played the hell out and thus have zero impact), Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins, a marvel as always) enlists Nathan in an advanced tutoring session (really just Rafe Spall teaching the kid more stuff, which is as amusing as it sounds), which eventually sparks Nathan to the idea that he can compete in the International Mathematics Olympiad. Nathan makes it to the IMO training camp in Taiwan, and as he sets out for his first big solo trip, he’s forced to come out of his shell and experience a host of new things – like love.

Yes, the real maths was love (no, seriously, at one point a struggling Nathan scours the internet for formulas to explain love), but A Brilliant Young Mind is so sensitively made (and, again, so well-acted) that it rises above its plot. Never discount the importance of adding in humanity and good old-fashioned talent to a feature, it can only make a film better than the sum of its parts (sorry). A Brilliant Young Mind was a lovely note to end my own trip on, and I depart Bentonville and the BFF with nothing but good memories, a journey well spent.

Catch up on Days One and Two of the Bentonville Film Festival right here, and Day Three right over here.